It was a long train journey through the countryside in which I had the pleasureable company of Manu Joseph's debut novel “Serious Men” set in Mumbai and in and around the area which happened to be my home for the next month or so. It's almost surreal to have such an experience of being in a certain place and reading a book whose plot is based in the same place too. The book had a very realistic and touching plot which explored India and it's society at various strata through the lives of various characters in the book. The book was thoroughly delightful with the humour and gripping plot which keeps you hooked.
The book which deeply matters to you is the one which touches you, moves you, changes you, challenges you and most consequentially the book and it's characters live inside you long after the final page is read and placed in book-shelf in the company of many others or returned to it's rightful owner or maybe lend to another friend. One such book is Manu Joseph's second novel “The Illicit Happiness Of Other People”. I finished the book in one sitting. I just had to.
Central to the plot of “The Illicit Happiness Of Other People” is a seventeen-year-old cartoonist named Unni Chacko. The entire book is about him but he is not there as a character but rather as a fragmanted memory of various people because he is dead, beacuse he killed himself. It chroniciles the quest of a “by-day-journalist-by-night-town-alcoholic” father to de-code the enigma behind the crytic cartoons left behind by his son to eventually know as to why he “did what he did”. Set in the Madras of 90's the book takes you as a witness to the household of Chackos or what is left of them after the departure of their son.
It's not a mystery Dan Brown thriller novel riddled with world threating secret societies if that's what you are getting at. It is a mirror to the Indian society, the society obsessed with “94% is not enough” “IIT-JEE is the only goal and America the only destination”. It is a spiritual odyssey of finding the true self and finding the true nature of reality beyond the definition of what religions accross the spectrum offer. Author's deep knowledge of Hinduism and psychology and treatment of all characters with such intense depth can hardly be found in any of Arvind Adiga's works or for that matter much of the Indian writing spectrum.
The book is as much about Hinduism as it is about Christianity. Whereas on one hand it explores Hinduism in the depths of philosophies relating nature of truth and reality Manu Joseph on the other hand explores Christianity on the surface on the issue of conversions exploiting the gullibility of naive people, or due to financial coercion, the dubious nature of evangilists and the inherent caste system followed in Indian version of Christianity. Had Manu Joseph been a Hindu or worse a Hindutva supporter all hell would have broken loose but I personally believe that he might not be a Hindu by practice but he's certainly a Hindu by mind.
The book chroniciles the life of a family fighting poverty, fighting mental disorders, fighting alcoholism, fighting the memories of a missing family member. It's heart wrenching to see the condition of a left-over family after one of them decided to call it quits for no apparent or overbearing reason. It also made more impact on me as I had the opportunity of going through some blogs recently where people had the heart of sharing their experiences of times when their life seemed impossible to bear and almost decided to call it quits and end their lives.
The book means much more to me than a racy novel with an intriguing plot. It was more of a spiritual journey where you pick up pieces and build your own truth. It's a social commentary on the nature of the societal setup, about the working of the collective social mindset and yes a potrayal of some free rebellious souls who are termed “crazy” or “lunatics” by the society but they they have seen something, experienced something, known something which is beyond the comprehension of a normal mind. If you can recognise the story within the story the truth will reflect and you'll be staring into it's eyes but if you miss it then well the story is engrossing and captivating in itself.
It's a rare book which interocks story-telling and philosophy one acting as an interlocutar to another. The truth is out there it's upto you if it reveals itself onto you or you miss. It's been one of the most satisfying reads I had had in recent times. The experience of going through the book will stay with me for a long time. Without much exaggeration I can safely say it has touched me and transformed me on multiple levels.